The Blue Devils' postseason momentum came to a halt against the defending national champions and could not be rebuilt in time to save their season.
Tenth-seeded Duke lost 4-0 in the Round of 16 to seventh-seeded Southern California Thursday night at the Hurd Tennis Center in Waco, Texas. The Blue Devils dropped into a quick 2-0 deficit after a quick doubles and singles defeat, and three singles matches were still in play when the Trojans clinched the match on courts two and five, spelling the end of the road for the Blue Devils.
"We lost the doubles point, and I feel like we let it affect us a little too much in singles," Duke head coach Ramsey Smith said. "For the most part, I felt like we came out a little flat, and they came out swinging."
Two of three doubles courts held promise early on for Duke (24-7). Although the Blue Devils' top doubles tandem of Raphael Hemmeler and Nicolas Alvarez fell 8-3 to third-ranked Yannick Hanfmann and Roberto Quiroz, the court two duo of junior Josh Levine and senior Jason Tahir stayed on serve while the court three pair—sophomore T.J. Pura and junior Bruno Semenzato—surged to a 5-2 lead after an early break.
But the young Trojan pair of sophomore Nick Crystal and freshman Thibault Forget fought back, leveling the score at six games apiece on court three before gaining the 7-6 advantage for Southern California (25-4). Before they could complete the comeback, play ended abruptly on court three as junior Max de Vroome and senior Eric Johnson broke their Duke opponents to claim the 8-5 victory and clinch the doubles point.
"I thought we played very good doubles at two and three. On one we got down in a hole and never got quite back in it, but two played well and we had a bunch of break point chances," Smith said. "Three was up a break and had chances for double break and had really good energy down on that end—I was pretty confident that they were going to be able to pull it out."
The Trojans carried the momentum built in doubles swiftly into singles play, claiming all six first sets—five of them by a margin of three games or more. On court six, Pura fought to a 4-2 lead in an effort to give the Blue Devils some hope, but fell 7-5 in the first set and lost five straight games in the ensuing set before play was suspended.
"T.J. was playing well on court six and getting fired up, but on the other five courts, they were kind of [getting to us] a little bit, and it was just kind of a quiet atmosphere," Smith said. "I felt like we kind of made an effort to be a little bit more vocal and have a little bit more energy in the second half of the singles, and it showed."
Alvarez—ranked 13th nationally—was overmatched on the top court, losing 1-6, 1-6 to No. 15 Hanfmann, who sped through singles play as quickly as he had doubles. Both players competed after various periods off the court due to injury. Hanfmann— who returned to play for most of April and into the postseason—had won just one of his seven most recent matches, with one unfinished—before cruising to victory against Alvarez behind an early advantage.
"Hanfmann's a great front-runner, and he just really loosened up and played incredible once he kind of got that lead," Smith said. "Hanfmann's one of the best players in college, and he was just really on today—I think that was probably one of his best matches this season—and he just got hot, got rolling and it was just hard to do anything different to throw him out of his rhythm."
Duke made a comeback bid on the middle four courts in the second half of singles play as Tahir kept No. 25 Quiroz at bay on court two, never gaining the advantage in game score but staying close until a 7-5 second-set loss sealed his team's fate. On court three, Hemmeler managed to get up a break in his second set against No. 85 Johnson by claiming the first two games and stopping any momentum Johnson built from the 6-3 first-set win.
Southern California took a 3-0 advantage behind Crystal's defeat of Chris Mengel on court five. The redshirt senior got behind early in both sets, falling 6-3, 6-2 to No. 94 de Vroome. Semenzato avenged a 6-2 first-set loss with a 6-4 win that forced his opponent—No. 45 Jonny Wang—into a third-set tiebreaker that was never played out due to the Trojan victory that came with Tahir's loss.
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"We finally got something going," Smith said. "Bruno won the second set, Jason gave himself a chance there in the second set, Rafa was up a break in the second... but hats off to Southern Cal—they're champs for a reason."
The Blue Devils finished their season with the sixth-most victories of any squad in program history and will be without four players—Hemmeler, Mengel, Semenzato and Tahir—heading into next season.
"It's tough right after a loss to reflect on the full season, the things we accomplished, but I think we'll sit back and really appreciate these four seniors and everything they've done," Smith said. "It was a great season, I felt we overcame the first two [NCAA tournament matches] well, and we had some great, great moments, and making it here and beating Stanford was a huge high for us, and I'm just disappointed we couldn't play better today. [Southern California] was clearly the better team, and they deserve to win this one."
Alvarez, Tahir and Hemmeler will compete in the NCAA singles tournament May 20-25 after receiving at-large bids. Alvarez and Hemmeler will also compete in the doubles tournament.